By Louisa Reynolds
Maria Ofelia Gómez Hernández will never forget Dec. 6, 1982. That day she was preparing breakfast for her two young children in her small home in the village of Dos Erres, when five heavily armed soldiers ill-disguised as guerrillas busted through her front door.
Dos Erres was located in the municipality of La Libertad, in Guatemala’s northernmost department of Petén.
The soldiers threw their food onto the ground and held them at gunpoint demanding to know where they kept their weapons cache. After they searched the house and found nothing, they left and said they would return later “to deal with them.”
Some members of the Gómez Hernández family were able to make a hasty escape from Dos Erres, but most of the villagers were not so lucky. Kaibil soldiers, an elite unit described during the trial as “killing machines” due to their brutal ferocity, surrounded Dos Erres and locked the men in the school and the women in the church with their children.
After the soldiers raped the women, the terrified villagers were blindfolded, bludgeoned with a sledgehammer and thrown into a well.
According to two Kaibil soldiers who testified as protected witnesses, a soldier fired into the well and threw a hand grenade as groans and screams were still heard from the heap of mangled bodies. In 1994, forensic anthropologists found 201 bodies in the well, including those of 67 children.
Although this horrific massacre happened 30 years ago, Gómez Hernández distinctly remembers the faces of the five soldiers who shattered her home and slaughtered 18 of her family members.
She describes one man in particular, as having a mole on his left cheekbone and wearing a red handkerchief tied around his neck. On March 13, the same man, Pedro Pimentel Ríos, sat two meters away from her at a Guatemalan court where he was sentenced to 6,060 years in prison, 30 years for each of the 201 people murdered and 30 years for crimes against humanity.
This is a verdict of huge historical significance as the judges invoked the Nuremberg principle, according to which a soldier is not forced to obey orders that involve committing human rights violations.
In 2010, four other soldiers involved in the Dos Erres massacre were given the same sentence: 6,060 years.
Pimentel Ríos, 54, was described by fellow Kaibil soldiers Favio Pinzón and César Franco as having a particularly vicious streak in his character. After the massacre, two women and two young boys, aged 5 and 3, were taken from the village. The two women were raped by the entire troop and one of them was allegedly slain by Pimentel Ríos, who sought to demonstrate to his fellow soldiers “how to kill someone.”
Two decades ago, he fled Guatemala fearing that he would be prosecuted for war crimes. He arrived in the United States illegally and worked in a garment factory in Santa Ana, California, until he was arrested by the immigration authorities in 2010.
Two other Kaibil soldiers, Jorge Vinicio Orantes Sosa and Gilberto Jordán, are currently being held by the US authorities, and extradition proceedings have already been initiated.
Arrest warrants have also been issued against eight other soldiers who are still at large.
Why did the massacre occur?
Some, but not all survivors and their family members have already been compensated, after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan state to pay reparations for the massacre.
On March 13, the court ruled that National Land Fund, or Fontierras, must now purchase the land where Dos Erres was located, which was later bought by alleged drug-trafficking ranchers, and return it to its original owners.
The farmers who founded Dos Erres met a horrific death in the same place where they had arrived in search of the promised land.
Petén was, and remains to this day, a backwater wilderness, and in 1978 a government development agency called FYDEP embarked on a policy to “colonize” the area by selling impoverished farmers from eastern Guatemala a piece of land in the new village of Dos Erres (“the two R’s”), which takes its name from its two founders, whose surnames were Ruano and Reyes.
By the early 1980s, Dos Erres had thrived and its 700 inhabitants raised pigs and grew corn, beans, pineapple and other crops, although they lacked access to basic utilities such as electricity and running water, with a single well as the only source of water in the community.
Many families established their home in the nearby village of Las Cruces, which was less isolated, and toiled during the week in the new land they had bought in Dos Erres, where they built their own rural school and tried, unsuccessfully, to extract water from a second well, where their bodies were thrown during the massacre.
As was the case in many other parts of the country, all adult males in Dos Erres were forced, under death threats, to take part in a paramilitary unit, or Civil Defense Patrol, to fight guerrilla groups, which appeared to have little presence in the area, until 21 soldiers were killed in October 1982 in an ambush set up by the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR) guerrilla group.
The army’s counter-offensive was swift and brutal. On Dec. 6, 1982, the Kaibil unit was ordered to wipe out Dos Erres, even though no weapons or leftist propaganda was ever found there.
Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s de facto ruler, who currently faces genocide charges, had launched a “scorched earth” policy that sought to eliminate any possible support base for the guerrillas, even when this meant slaughtering entire villages.
In the courtroom adjacent to where Pimentel Ríos was being tried, the Ríos Montt hearing was simultaneously taking place and the former dictator was denied the right to amnesty.
The victims still dream of returning to Dos Erres, as they feel that leaving amounts to abandoning their loved ones, and founding a community of survivors.